What to make of meat substitutes

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There seems to be a lot of clamouring to replace real meat in the marketplace.

Here are some things to consider: 

We need protein. In fact, experts predict that within the next 30 years, the world will need to produce 50 per cent more protein to adequately feed everyone on this planet.

Some people feel that needs to be done without the help of animals, who provide high quality protein from poultry, fish, eggs, meat, milk and cheese. And they also aren’t too fond of the potential to harness insects as a food source for our expanding world population.

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The increasingly popular Impossible Burger has no cholesterol (no plant food does), but it has more calories, fat and saturated fat than a burger made with lean, ground beef.

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The increasingly popular Impossible Burger has no cholesterol (no plant food does), but it has more calories, fat and saturated fat than a burger made with lean, ground beef.

Plant foods supply protein as well. And meat substitutes made with soy, quinoa, peas and other vegetable proteins have been around for decades.

Here are the ingredients (from most to least) in Morningstar Farms Grillers Original Veggie Burger, for example: water, wheat gluten, soy flour, vegetable oils, egg whites, calcium caseinate, corn starch, onion and soy powders, methylcellulose, onion and carrot concentrates, salt, natural flavour, soy protein isolate, garlic powder, spices, sugar, gum acacia, whey, yeast extract, xanthan gum, tomato starch, tomato paste and onion juice concentrate. Protein? 16 grams in a 57g patty, about what you’d get in 2 eggs. 

Recently we’ve heard about cell-based, cultured or “cultivated” meats. These products are grown in a laboratory from the cells of real animals. While some may argue that this is real meat –grown in a lab instead of a cow – others question whether it really is and believe it should be clearly labeled (if and when it comes to market).

Now we have the Impossible Burger, which seems to pop-up everywhere. This product claims to be everything we love about beef, except it’s not beef. Protein in a 113 gram serving: 19 grams. 

Exact ingredients in the Impossible burger are copyrighted, but I did find this list on the company website: water, textured wheat protein, coconut oil, potato protein, natural flavours, leghemoglobin, yeast extract, salt, soy protein isolate, konjac gum, zinc and B-vitamins.

What is leghemoglobin? It’s the ingredient – manufactured from genetically engineered yeast – that this company says makes their product taste like meat.

Plant-based foods are a fabulous source of protein.

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Plant-based foods are a fabulous source of protein.

And now … ready for this? … there is a meatless “air-based meat” made with elements found in the air – carbon dioxide, oxygen and nitrogen. These are blended with water and minerals and fermented to produce protein. Yum.

Real beef is produced the old-fashioned way by cows who eat plant food. It has one ingredient: beef, which is naturally rich in protein (23 grams in 113 grams), iron, zinc, selenium and B-vitamins.

How do these products rate nutritionally? Gram for gram, a Morningstar veggie burger contains less saturated fat than lean beef. Yet – because it contains more processed ingredients – it has five times more sodium than fresh beef. The Impossible Burger has no cholesterol (no plant food does), but it has more calories, fat and saturated fat (the type of fat we are called to reduce in our diet) than a burger made with lean, ground beef.

Some would tell us these meat-type substitutes are better for the environment. That’s a discussion for another day. For now, remember that we have choices. Let’s try our best to base them on sound information. 

Barbara Quinn is a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator affiliated with Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula. She is the author of Quinn-Essential Nutrition.

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